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Price, Van der Merwe and Conan bolt their way into the Lions' starting Test XV

Warren Gatland has never been afraid to make bold selection calls.

Ali Price starts ahead of Conor Murray at 9.
Ali Price starts ahead of Conor Murray at 9.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Updated Jul 21st 2021, 3:06 PM

WARREN GATLAND HAS never been afraid of making bold selection calls and his latest Lions Test selection continues the theme.

Heading into this tour, there weren’t too many predicted Test XVs that included Ali Price, Jack Conan, or Elliot Daly at outside centre.

Even in recent days, the widespread expectation was that Conor Murray and Taulupe Faletau’s experience would see them holding onto the number nine and number eight jerseys they wore in 2017. Instead, the Irishman is on the bench and the Welshman isn’t even involved.

Players of the quality of Josh Adams, Mako Vunipola, and Iain Henderson miss out too. Gatland admitted that this was “by far the hardest Test selection I have been involved in” on his four tours with the Lions, having stressed just a few weeks ago that he hadn’t come into this trip with any preconceived notions about his XV.

There are a number of marginal calls across the team. Wyn Jones’ excellent performance against South Africa A last week wrapped up his selection there, with Scotland’s Rory Sutherland set to provide aggressive impact as Vunipola misses out.

Similarly, Luke Cowan-Dickie’s excellent showing last Saturday against the Stormers has helped him edge the hooker battle, with the wily Ken Owens on the bench and Jamie George missing out altogether.

Tadhg Furlong was nailed-on at tighthead and Kyle Sinckler has done very well since missing out on the original Lions selection. He was called up as an injury replacement for the unlucky Andrew Porter and deserves his bench spot ahead of Zander Fagerson.

Maro Itoje was another certainty and as soon as Alun Wyn Jones returned to the tour, it looked likely that he would be in the Test team. The captain came through 26 minutes of action versus the Stormers but has still played very little rugby in recent months. 

tadhg-beirne-and-warren-gatland Tadhg Beirne will play an impact role off the bench. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The bench lock cover, Tadhg Beirne, hasn’t played in the second row on this tour but Courtney Lawes could shift into the second row whenever Beirne is unleashed in his impact role. 

Lawes being rested for the past two games was a hint that Gatland was freshening him up for a massive physical effort against the Boks and the Englishman will certainly be asked to be an enforcer. 

23-year-old Tom Curry is the youngest member of the team and has edged out Hamish Watson in what was surely a very tight call. Again, Watson will certainly have a crucial role to play off the bench.

It’s the inclusion of Conan at number eight that has proven to be the biggest surprise of all in the pack. The Bray man only played his first Ireland Test in 18 months as recently as March but was then outstanding against England in the last game of the Six Nations to earn a spot in the Lions squad. 

He was a bolter even for the overall squad but has now forced his way into the Test team with his fine form as Faletau misses out. Conan’s dynamism and skill level are well suited to the task of taking on the Springboks.

Dan Biggar was the favourite at out-half due to Owen Farrell’s on-and-off form but Murray has long been expected to be his halfback partner. Instead, Biggar will start with Ali Price for the first time on Saturday, having had just 20 minutes on the pitch together against Japan four weekends ago.

It seems Price’s sharp performance last weekend against the Stormers edged him ahead of Murray, who was tour captain while Jones was rehabbing in Wales. Price’s sniping game is a real strength and he has defended and kicked well on this tour, aside from a couple of overly-long efforts last weekend.

The selection of Price is an indication of how keen Gatland is to unsettle the Boks’ defence close to the ruck, where the Scot is a good decision-maker. He hasn’t played on this kind of stage before – he has faced the weaker opposition in South Africa so far – and there is an element of unknown about it but Gatland has liked what he has seen.

Murray is still involved in the matchday 23 and looks likely to enter the fray when the game is in the balance in the closing quarter. His composure could be vital.

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elliot-daly-is-tackled Daly has been impressive on tour. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Robbie Henshaw’s successful return from a hamstring issue last weekend left him primed for a start in the first Test, where he will look to get back to the stunning form he was in prior to injury.

Alongside him, Daly will make his first Test start at outside centre since 2016. The Saracens man usually plays in the back three for his country and did so for the Lions in 2017 too. He had a stuttering Six Nations campaign but has been very strong on this tour. His emergence to start may even have surprised Gatland.

Anthony Watson continues as a Test Lion after three starts on the wing last time in New Zealand, while Hogg finally gets his opportunity to join the club.

The Scotland captain was very unlucky to sustain a fractured cheekbone in an accidental collision with Murray on the last tour, while he had the frustration of having to isolate as a close contact of a positive Covid case on this trip. 

However, his return last weekend was enough to convince Gatland to pick him ahead of Liam Williams and there’s little doubt that the Lions boss likes Hogg’s superb kicking game and counter-attacking ability. There is also a clear, infectious desire exuding from Hogg to be a successful Lion. It seems quite possible he will take over the captaincy whenever Jones is replaced.

The selection of van der Merwe on the left wing has raised some eyebrows, but he has been excellent on tour. The Lions seem likely to use his size and power on the early phases of set-piece attack, an area in which Josh Adams made two errors last weekend.

This call was so tight that those tiny margins could have decided it. As with Price, we simply don’t know how van der Merwe will deal with an occasion as big as Saturday’s, while he has not been tested in defence on this tour. There is no doubting his attacking prowess and attack coach Gregor Townsend, who coaches him for Scotland, will be keen to ensure van der Merwe has as many touches of the ball as possible.

Meanwhile, Gatland will have some confidence that a bench of Sutherland, Owens, Sinckler, Beirne, Watson, Murray, Farrell, and Williams can play a big part in Cape Town this weekend.

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Murray Kinsella

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